It’s hard to remember, or believe, that one of the things Bush promised when the Supreme Court finally elected him president oh so many years ago was to bring civility back to our national political culture. It was the usual sham Bush promise and it was forgotten long before Vice President Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to go f**k himself last year.
I’m thinking of the whole civility issue because it comes up in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book on Lincoln’s presidency, “Team of Rivals.” She relates how Edward Bates, who like Lincoln was a dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination in 1860, had gotten into a dispute with a fellow congressman while serving in the House in 1828. Things got personal enough that Bates challenged his opponent to a duel; the challenge prompted an apology, and the matter went no further.
Goodwin quotes one of Bates’s friends, Charles Gibson, about the beneficial effects of the code of dueling on polite political discourse:
” ‘The code preserrved a dignity, justice and decorum that have since been lost. to the great detriment of the professions, the public, and the government. The present generation will think me barbarous but I believe that some lives lost in protecting the tone of the bar and the press, on which the Republic so largely depends, are well spent.’ ”
Interesting to contemplate: You have to wonder who among the current generation of TV pundits might survive the bloodletting if dueling were the fashion nowadays; and of course the folks you’d be seeing on the air at this point would be a mix of the timid, the utterly polite, and the best shooters and fencers.